Monday, February 21, 2005


Hunter Thompson is dead, a victim of apparently self-inflicted gunshot wounds.

At least he didn’t OD, crash a small plane into the side of a mountain, or die choking on his (or possibly someone else’s) vomit. That’s the usual end for a rock-n-roll star. Thompson took the Hemingway route.

If life were a silly Hollywood movie and I had the chance to be another writer, at least for a little while, Thompson was probably the one I’d have picked. (The other top candidates: Chandler, Borges, Thurber.) I once wrote a final essay for a college journalism course entirely in the style of Thompson. It was one of the few things I wrote in college that was any good at all.

Before Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas made him a brandname and then a cartoon character (metaphorically and literally), Thompson was a damned fine writer. Hells Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga ranks with Homage to Catalonia as one of the finest pieces of first-person journalism ever committed to paper. (Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail could also have been great, if anyone had bothered to edit it.)

The magazine pieces Thompson wrote between Hells Angels and Fear and Loathing were brilliant – sharp, wildly funny, cutting straight to the bone through hypocrisy and greed. Nobody had his pacing, his gift for the surreal image. (“Lucy, while we argued, was lying on the patio, doing a charcoal sketch of Barbra Streisand. From memory this time. It was a full-faced rendering, with teeth like baseballs and eyes like jellied fire.”)

His words had heft and velocity. They flew across the page, one sentence rolling into the next.

After that, well, every Thompson story became a story about Thompson. Thompson getting high, Thompson getting higher, Thompson finding any possible excuse to avoid writing about the topic he’d been assigned, Thompson driving his editor insane. No other writer got more mileage out of writing about his inability to write.

I had two Near-Thompson experiences in my life.

The first occurred when I went to see him speak at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley in the mid-80s. “See” him speak is an apt phrase; it was almost physically impossible to hear him speak. Thompson’s vocal style has been well described as a “barking mumble” – a manic, drug-addled Thurston Howell with a cigarette holder clenched in his teeth.

It was a pitiful performance, largely because a) Thompson was fucked up beyond normal human tolerance, and b) the moderator was a sycophantic college student who asked unbearably stupid questions, and c) the audience, all of whom wanted to become part of the Thompson legend and kept approaching the stage to offer him dope, booze, and, in one case, a cannister of ether.

Thompson did not refuse. I imagine that might make a decent epitaph for him: I Never Said No.

My second experience happened on the phone. I was an assistant editor at a magazine in San Francisco, and I came up with the brilliant idea of asking Thompson his opinion about computers (knowing that he had a fascination with typewriters, the faster the better). At the time, Thompson was writing a column for the San Francisco Examiner, so I called his editor there and asked how to get in touch with him.

The editor paused. “You want to speak to Hunter?” he seemed a little incredulous. I got the impression that perhaps he’d never spoken to Hunter himself. “Well, OK, you can try. Here’s the number of the bar where you’ll find him. Good luck.”

I dialed the number, something in the 303 area code. The bartender answered. In the background I could hear Thompson – not what he was saying, just the rise and fall of the barking mumble. He was apparently holding forth on some topic at high volume. I asked, extremely timidly, if Mr. Thompson was there and could he come to the phone. I heard the bartender say something in the general direction of the bar. And then….click. Silence. I tried again. This time I couldn’t get an entire sentence out before he hung up on me.

Though I was not there, the scene is burned into my brain. I can see Thompson at the bar, Hawaiian shirt, dark glasses, a smoky amber liquid in a glass. I can see him raise his hand and give a quick thumbs down, in the manner of a Roman emperor consigning a prisoner to his death. And then the bartender re-hooks the phone.

(When I returned from lunch later that day there was a note on my chair. It was left by one of my colleagues who’d overheard the whole debacle. “Hunter Thompson called,” the note said. “He doesn’t want to speak to you.”)

Hunter Thompson just hung up for the last time.


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